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WITHIN Blog: Thanksgiving 2020

Thanksgiving - How gratitude can have positive impacts on your sleep, pain and wellbeing

By Michelle Pun, Jenna Gillett & Paige Karadag on behalf of the Warwick Sleep & Pain Lab


Thanksgiving is a national holiday celebrated in different counties such as America, Canada and Brazil and is often marked with family get-togethers and a large turkey for dinner! Traditionally, it is an occasion where people give thanks for their blessings from the past year. In the UK, we don’t typically celebrate thanksgiving the way people do across the Atlantic, but as it falls during our second national lockdown due to COVID-19, we have been wondering about the concept of giving thanks from a psychological and health perspective.

happy thanksgiving watercolour illustration with fruits and vegetables.


Giving thanks’ is similar to showing gratitude. Gratitude can be felt and expressed in different ways from simply saying ‘thank you’ to someone or showing grand gestures of thanks. There has been some interesting research on the benefits of gratitude, showing that frequent expression of gratitude being associated with a more positive outlook. In a now classic experiment, Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson (2005) asked their participants to complete one of 6 activities and studied their effect of happiness. One of these activities involved expressing gratitude, whereby participants were given one week to write and then deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who has been especially kind to them but had never been thanked properly. Large positive changes were noted in participants who had wrote the gratitude letter and these changes that lasted for one month.

In other studies, gratitude has also been linked to having a greater appreciation for life, which can help reduce negative thoughts and buffer against stress (Wood, Maltby, Stewart, & Joseph, 2008). Using questionnaires, Wood et al. (2008) measured sleep quality, gratitude, pre-sleep thoughts, personality traits and social desirability. Overall, it was found that gratitude was related to greater sleep quality and sleep duration. Gratitude was also associated with less daytime dysfunction as well as participants falling asleep quicker.

Giving thanks can also impact sleep, one study we found looked at the influence of gratitude on sleep and psychological distress amongst adults with chronic pain. The findings demonstrated that high ratings of gratitude were linked to better quality of sleep as well as lower depressive symptoms and anxiety (Ng & Wong, 2013). The researchers also found that when differences in sleep were controlled for, higher gratitude was significantly associated with lower depression, but not associated with anxiety. One possible explanation for the association between gratitude and low depression, could be because individuals with depression tend to have a negative cognitive bias, meaning that these individuals are often predisposed to intrusive negative thoughts and feelings. By practicing gratitude, such individuals are able to challenge some of those negative beliefs (Beck, 1976) and consequently depressive symptoms may be somewhat reduced. Additionally, gratitude elicits more positive thoughts over negative ones (Kini et al, 2015) and these positive thoughts may interfere less with the ability to have a good quality sleep (Wood, Joseph, Lloyd, & Atkins, 2009).


Although the above research highlights the positive impacts that expressing gratitude has on wellbeing and sleep, we appreciate that it is not always easy to give thanks, particularly when times are tough. This past year has been particularly challenging, especially for patients with chronic pain who have felt the harsher effects of the pandemic, such as not being able to access pain management services. You might be wondering what can we give thanks for, when the year has been so full of loss? In some ways, that makes giving thanks even more important this year, as we must remember what we have, in order for us to go on and look to the future. One thing that as a nation that we are thankful for now more than ever is our National Health Service, and all of the key-workers who selflessly helped to keep society running in such uncertain times and continue to do so every day.
As we enter the final stretch of 2020, we have been reflecting on the year gone by and the benefits of giving thanks. We would like to wish all our members and readers a “Happy Thanksgiving” and extend a special thank you to all the individuals who volunteer with us – you have all enabled the continued work and research of the lab even in difficult times such as those we find ourselves in currently.

Written by:

Michelle Pun (Volunteer, Sleep & Pain Lab & UG Psychology Student)
Jenna Gillett (PhD Student, dep. of Psychology) &
Paige Karadag (Research Assistant, WITHIN Project)


Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. International Universities Press.
Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389.
Hill, P., Allemand, M., & Roberts, B. (2013). Examining the Pathways between Gratitude and Self-Rated Physical Health across Adulthood. Personality and individual differences, 54 1, 92-96.
Kini, P., Wong, J., McInnis, S., Gabana, N., & Brown, J. (2016). The effects of gratitude expression on neural activity. NeuroImage, 128, 1-10.
Ng, M.-Y., & Wong, W.-S. (2013). The differential effects of gratitude and sleep on psychological distress in patients with chronic pain. Journal of Health Psychology, 18(2), 263–271. 
Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. The American psychologist, 60(5), 410–421.
Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., Lloyd, J., & Atkins, S. (2009). Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. Journal of psychosomatic research, 66(1), 43–48.
Wood, A. M., Maltby, J., Gillett, R., Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2008). The role of gratitude in the development of social support, stress and depression: Two longitudinal studies. Journal of Research in Personality 42: 854–87.